The Hopeful Stump – Dec. 8, 2019
The Hopeful Stump
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
December 8, 2019
Main Idea: Hope springs eternal.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Picture, if you will, a tree stump. Maybe it is in a forest, maybe in your front yard. Maybe it is low to the ground, maybe it is knee high. Maybe it is wide enough to sit on. Or maybe it is just big enough to trip over. A stump is a remnant of a tree that once was. It is the absence of a tree. And in that way, a stump is a sad image of loss. But a stump is also an image of possibility. It is an image of making way for something new. A stump is a perfect place for new life to begin. I have a small rose bush which, two summers ago, became engulfed in weeds while we were traveling out west. When we returned and pulled out the weeds, the rose bush was ridiculously tall and spindly. We cut it back to a small stump and last summer it regrew beautifully. It took some boldness to cut back my rose bush with the hope that it would grow again. In this Season of Advent we are preparing for the Incarnation with the prophet Isaiah and today for our contemplation, Isaiah gives us a hopeful stump!
As I said last week, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed his message to Jerusalem and Judah between 742 and 687 BCE which was during a time when the Northern kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrian Empire and the Southern kingdom of Judah lived uneasily in that Empire’s shadow. The context for today’s text was a difficult time around 733 BCE “when the northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus tried to force [the southern kingdom of] Judah and [their] King Ahaz to join their rebellion against Assyria. On Isaiah’s advice, Ahaz refused; but then, instead of joining the rebel alliance, he called on Assyria to intervene.” (Bruce C. Birch, FOTW, Year A, Vol 1, p. 27) This they did, destroying Samaria and bringing about the end of the Northern kingdom of Israel in 721BCE. Isaiah did not approve of Ahaz’s actions but he was hopeful that Ahaz’s successor, Hezekiah, would be a better king and more in keeping with the Biblical mandate of how a king should behave. Isaiah dreamed of a ruler who would follow God’s call and would finally bring peace to Judah and Jerusalem.
Isaiah’s vision of the hoped-for ruler begins in a surprising way. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”(11:1). Right before today’s passage Isaiah envisions God chopping down trees. Chapter 10 ends with, ”Look, the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.” (10:33-34) The mighty trees are all cut down and then Isaiah directs our attention to a stump! To a tiny shoot coming up out of a dead stump, a little branch growing from the root of the fallen tree. After the devastation of the mighty, a small seedling of hope. This is the stump of Jesse who was King David’s father. This new ruler will have the same lineage as David but will be better than David, with none of King David’s failings.
This new ruler will be anointed by God and God’s Spirit will rest upon him, giving him “wisdom and understanding”, “counsel and might”, “knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” This fear of the LORD means something more like awe of the LORD, rather than fearfulness. His only motivation will be to follow God’s call. He will not judge by outward appearances, listening only to the rich and powerful; rather he will side with the poor and the meek of the earth, ensuring that they receive justice.
The next image in the text is striking and strange. “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” His words and his presence will be more powerful than any weapon. He will bring people to justice without physical violence. His righteousness and faithfulness will surround him at all times and bind him like a belt around his waist. Despite his inauspicious beginnings, growing out of a stump, this ruler will be worthy of God’s anointing.
At this point Isaiah lifts up another vision, related to the first. Here he envisions the new reality which will be ushered in with the new ruler. We have all seen images of this peaceable kingdom; often on Christmas cards, where predators and prey lay down together in peace, a sweet little lamb sleeping next to a lion. But Isaiah’s intention is not to be cute. When we stop and consider this vision more closely we can see how audacious it is. One of the commentators I read this week quoted Woody Allen who said “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep!” (Barbara Lundblad, workingpreacher.org). Imagine what trust would be required to allow a wolf into a sheep fold. Imagine a young child playing among these wild animals or a baby playing near a poisonous snake. In this vision the trust is absolute. This is the vision of God’s plan for creation. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (11:9) The earth will be bathed, infused, surrounded, and held by the knowledge of God just “as the waters cover the sea.”
“On that day the root of Jesse, [the stump of Jesse] shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (11:10)
For Isaiah, the righteous ruler and the age of peace were part of a hoped-for future. For us, we reside in between these two visions. We live in a time of “already/not yet” which is also how we describe the Kingdom of God. It is already here among us but not yet fully realized. We recognize Isaiah’s hoped for ruler as Jesus, our anointed King. Jesus himself identified with the prophecies of Isaiah and used them to express his mission and ministry. In the Gospel of Luke, he begins his public ministry with a quote from Isaiah chapter 61 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… to preach good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18) This echoes today’s text “The Spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,…with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (Is. 11:2a,4a) In this Advent season we wait and prepare for his coming.
The reality of the peaceable kingdom still eludes us. In fact, peace is far from us. Our world is full of predators preying on the weak and vulnerable. The world is roiled by oppression, protests, violence, and hunger. We are awash in fear and discord; around the world, across our nation, even within our own families. And yet, “according to Isaiah, the transformation from a culture of fear to a world at peace begins with a stump. Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life – a green sprig. This is how hope gets its start – it emerges as a tiny tendril in an unexpected place.” (Stacey Simpson Duke, FOTW Year A Vol 1, p. 28)
So, where are the stumps in our lives? Where are we stuck, or lifeless, or cut off? Think of a challenge or disappointment in your life. Can you imagine and believe that God is working to bring about something new and life giving from that old stump? Something not thought of before? Can we look to the past with gratitude for the foundation laid, rather than with nostalgia for how things used to be? As a congregation, this winter we are pruning our governing structure in order to make space for new growth. This takes boldness and faith and hope that what is to come will be worth letting go of what was past. This takes patience as we wait for the new to take hold and grow.
“God comes to us in this Advent time and invites us to move beyond counting the rings of the past. We may still want to sit on the stump for a while, and God will sit with us. But God will also keep nudging us: “Look! Look — there on the stump. Do you see that green shoot growing?” (Barbara Lundblad, workingpreacher.org) As we prepare our hearts and minds for the gift of the Christ Child, may we recognize and care for the tender seedlings and shoots which are growing up around us and within us. They are gifts to us from the hopeful stump.
Let us pray,
Amazing God, we thank you for Isaiah’s vision of peace and we pray for its fulfillment. Help us to recognize the new growth among us so that we may boldly and joyfully proclaim the coming of our Christ. Amen.